Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Two very different movies, “Dancer in the Dark,” (2000) and “The State Within,” (2006) both show -- in detail -- two people on death row. “Dancer in the Dark” is about a woman going blind and dedicated to a course of action meant to save her son’s eyesight. It takes her into a “blind alley” that leads to an accusation of murder. She is hanged.

“The State Within”
has a sub-plot in which an African-American man is framed to get rid of his knowledge, which he manages to transmit after his death. He dies of lethal injection. He is a “good guy,” but has been involved in some very bad things.

Most surprising are the two genres: “Dancer in the Dark” is a musical (the main character is Bjork whom I am too benighted in the boonies to have known about) and reflexively talks about the pleasure of musicals, the puzzle of a convention that allows everyone to break into song, even though the song content is very dark and the dancing is patterned and often synchronized in a rather old-fashioned way, reflecting the structure of assembly line plants and law protocols. I thought of “Carousel” or “Sandhog,” which never really caught on but was staged at Northwestern when I was there (‘57-’61) and has never left my mind since. “Dancer in the Dark” is innocently and directly a vehicle for the talents of the singer/actress, but very well done.

“The State Within” is a spy thriller, very closely related to the popular “MI-5.” Since the tale is basically British where the death penalty is not imposed, that part has to be American and one of the threads is always contrast between Brit and American. The Brit idea of America is not flattering. The tachistoscopic editing, the flip to negatives, the sounds, the high tech gizmos and the complex plots are standard in such movies now.

Either story could be taken as testimony against the death penalty by invoking the futility of a justice system trying to figure out what actually happened, much less what it implies in terms of justice. The African-American has been guilty of other deaths, just not this one, but his death is clearly rigged. The Bjork character is as much seized by fate as acting voluntarily. Von Trier, the director, is known for his innocently passionate heroines who devote themselves to those they love no matter the consequences to themselves. Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves” is the parallel. It’s “The Little Mermaid” without the Disney candy.

I wouldn’t talk about the two movies together except that there was an intriguing development in the plotting of both: the jailer who at first appears to be stony and harshly violent, who then becomes a supportive guide through the ordeal. Maybe this comes from the English movie about the courtly executioner who kept his standards high as the last hangman. He begins repellent and gradually becomes the most likeable character in his story.

Neither of these doomed protagonists is noble in death. Bjork has to be strapped to a board to hold her upright while she is hanged. The hit man is also wrestled and restrained on a table. The jailer in the Bjork film is a woman, of course, who is a combination nurse and chaplain, while the official chaplain stands by numbly. In “The State Within” the jailer actually testifies in a clemency hearing. He explains that there are three kinds of people in his line of work: those who do their job and go home, those who rather enjoy the control and license to punish, and those -- like himself -- who pray for the condemned from the moment they arrive until the moment they die.

The Lutheran minister who was the head of the chaplaincy department in Rockford, IL, where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education used to say that for human beings, nothing really “happens” unless it was witnessed by other human beings. No secret ceremonies in some hidden place -- always a congregation, even if it’s one person.

By coincidence, an article by Richard Perez-Pena about Michael Graczyk, an AP reporter in Houston, Texas, just appeared in the New York Times. Graczyk is one of the few reporters who covers executions: he has seen more than 300 of them. He is not just part of the congregation, but also the witness of both congregation and condemned person.

“’There are times when I’m the only person present who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome,’ he said.

"Seeing inmates in the death chamber, strapped to a gurney and moments away from lethal injections, he has heard them greet him by name, confess to their crimes for the first time, sing, pray and, once, spit out a concealed handcuff key. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with other witnesses who stared, wept, fainted, turned their backs or, in one case, exchanged high-fives.

"No reporter, warden, chaplain or guard has seen nearly as many executions as Mr. Graczyk, 59, Texas prison officials say. In fact, he has probably witnessed more than any other American. It could be emotionally and politically freighted work, but he takes it with a low-key, matter-of-fact lack of sentiment, refusing to hint at his own view of capital punishment.

“'My job is to tell a story and tell what’s going on, and if I tell you that I get emotional on one side or another, I open myself to criticism,' he said.

“He often covers the crimes, the trials and the appeals, immersed in details so gruesome it is hard to imagine they are real.

“’The act is very clinical, almost anticlimactic,’ Mr. Graczyk said. ‘When we get into the chamber here in Texas, the inmate has already been strapped to the gurney and the needle is already in his arm.’

“Witnesses are mostly subdued, he said, and while 'some are in tears, outright jubilation or breakdowns are really rare.'

“But before the drugs flow, the inmate is allowed to make a last statement, giving Mr. Graczyk what even he acknowledges are some lasting, eerie memories.

“'One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,' Mr. Graczyk said. ‘I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.’”

So executions can actually become musicals.

You can bet on this detail showing up in a movie some day. Graczyk might even be asked for an option on his life story. As a nation/congregation we have a greedy appetite for death and it seems only proper to make witnesses of us, so that we know what actually happens. After all, we’re the ones killing these people. Which of the three categories of jailer do we fit into?

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